Geez, look at all these old castles, the American tourists say, but why did they build them so close to the highway?
The opulent and elegant castles of Brandenburg’s Prussian aristocracy attract visitors in throngs to the delightful city of Potsdam, 25km south of Berlin.
Standing in the glittering and glamorous Marmorgalerie (Marble Gallery) of the Neue Palais, with its shiny chessboard floor, weighty chandeliers, massive arch windows and lavishly decorated ceiling, I think, no, it’s not so good to be the King; so much responsibility and attention. Friedrich III died in this room after ruling only 99 days, burdened by the pressures of the throne. A hapless Count or Baron or Duke, would be more my speed, the soft landlord presiding over a county of simple peasants; living an existence of quiet drudgery with my hunts and dinner parties, my mistress tucked away and bored in some lonely tower on a lake.
That would be the life for me. On special occasions I would strap on the corset, pin on my medals, and troop off to the Neue Palais for some reception or party or other honouring the presence of a visiting royal of importance. We would gather in the Grottensaal (Grotto Hall), with its gems, sea shells and fossils making the room seem like a giant upside down bath tub, drink champagne and discuss a certain scandalous affair that was sweeping such and such a court. ‘And the girl is just a commoner; it’s an outrage.’
This is why I come to Potsdam, to let my historical fancy take hold. The palaces in and around the city are surprisingly well preserved, having survived two world wars and the communist wrecking ball, and with the beautifully landscaped parks, offer an experience both individual and peaceful for visitors. People respond to the palaces each in their own way but agree on one thing: the palaces are beautiful, rivalling the Loire Valley in magnitude and magnificence.
And that’s why about once a month, normally on a weekday when it’s not so crowded, I trek down from Berlin to Sanssouci and the surrounding gardens. Sanssouci gets a lot of tour bus traffic, while the other parks, Neuer Garten, Park Glienecke, Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island) and Park Babelsberg (altogether comprising the largest landscaped park in Europe) are less popular but equally rewarding. Depending on my mood, I might thump around the parks like a disgruntled peasant, plotting regicide; or I might be a young prince, bored and trapped by the garden, seeking adventure and the simple life; or I could be a cunning queen, old and haggard, manipulating the King in Lady Macbeth fashion. The palaces and gardens retain their royal feel, allowing the luxury of imaginary travel.
Any visit to Potsdam starts with Sanssouci (1745-47), the small palace built as a summer residence for Friedrich the Great, who named it as the place ‘without cares’. With only 12 rooms, it’s hardly a palace of grandeur, but taken together with the sloping vineyard spread out below, and the Picture Gallery (the first purpose built museum in Germany) and New Chambers (a guest house where my drunk Count surely threw up on the marble floor) flanking the palace either side, it is a good example of Kulturlandschaft – the palaces in harmony with nature. The only thing that looks out of place is the historic windmill, rebuilt in 1993 for Potsdam’s millennium celebration.
Sanssouci Park is quite large, being formally a hunting ground, and requires a bit of walking. Don’t miss the Orangerie, styled like the Medici Villa in Rome and the Uffizi in Florence, or the richly gilded Chinese House, glittering gold in a sea of green, once a summer dining room. The Roman Baths and Charlottenhof Palace are also worth a look, but all boulevards lead to the enormous Neue Palais (1763-69).
The palace was built after the Seven Years War, in which Prussia had suffered heavy losses, as a showpiece of the kingdom’s remaining power. With 200 opulent rooms, festive halls, galleries and theatres, it is just how us peasants imagine castles to be. There are also over 500 statues on the roof, causing one Prussian General to quip that there were ‘more people on the roof than in the streets.’ Unfortunately, very little of the original furniture remains, with Kaiser Wilhelm II having packed everything into wagons and shipped it with him to the Netherlands when he went into exile in 1918.
Walking distance from Sanssouci, though I’m sure my Count was carried, is the delightful Neuer Garten. Started in 1787 under Friedrich Wilhelm II, known as Fat William, as a getaway from Sanssouci, the garden is home to the Marmorpalais, Belvedere on the Pfingstberg, and SchlossCecilienhof, used in 1945 for the Potsdam Conference and the last castle of the Hohenzollern Kings, built during WWI for Crown Prince Wilhelm. More bizarre is the Eiskeller (Ice Cellar) shaped like an Egyptian pyramid, the KÃ¼chenhaus, a kitchen designed like a sunken and ruined Roman temple, and the Orangerie, replete with Egyptian portal and sphinx.
Fat William’s court was famous for its debaucherie and willingness to engage in vices. He maintained a lifelong relationship with his mistress, a commoner he elevated to Countess Lichtenau, and built the romantic castle on Pfaueninsel as a residence for her and the five children she bore him. It’s a beautiful castle, with fairytale towers but in garish white, making it stand out like a theatre prop; hardly discreet.
There is something fantastic and mysterious about this island, landscaped as an extension of the Neuer Garten. Even before that, the island was shrouded in legend after alchemist Johannes Kunkel tried to make gold there in the 17th century, producing ruby glass instead. The island is reached by regular ferry from nearby Park Glienecke.
It is lovely to follow the lake from the ferry to the castle and casino in Glienecke. The palace and grounds were laid out by Schinkel and Lenné in the 19th century for Prince Carl of Prussia, whose passion for Italy is evident in the style of the buildings. Across KÃ¶nigstrasse, in the direction of Park Babelsberg, is a hunting lodge from 1653, a real hidden treasure. At various times the lodge was used as a hospital, a wallpaper factory and an orphanage. Renovations in 1859 gave it the baroque appearance we see today.
I dare say my Count would have loved Park Babelsberg, laid out by Lenné and Prince PÃ¼ckler. The palace (1834-35) was designed by Schinkel and is a palace of the imagination. The tower rises out from the trees and looks over the wide expanse of the Tiefersee, looking west towards Sanssouci. In my fancy, I imagine dark dungeons and secret passageways, dalliances behind heavy stone doors, and soldiers lugging vats of hot tar to the top of the tower to drop on the surging enemy.
In the garden, the rolling hills are peppered with statues and stone benches, and the remains of a small theatre. A victory column is perched on one hill while the Flatow Tower, a residential tower made in the style of a medieval city gate, is also worth a look.
Not to be dismissed is the town of Potsdam itself. The capital of Brandenburg is worth exploring in its own right. Enjoy the Alter Markt, the Brandenburg and Nauen Gates, and take a walk through the Russian Colony, Alexandrowka. Luisenplatz and Brandenburger Strasse are delightful for strolling and people watching, while the Film Museum is good for a rainy day.
But it’s the castles and gardens that bring the people in droves (over 2 million visitors a year) with each one staring at the lavish palaces and imagining the follies and adventures of royals with simply too much time on their hands.